Panaro: COVID-19 has underscored deepening socioeconomic divides and celebrity ineptitude

Kevin Panaro, Staff Columnist

The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed a lot about America’s tendencies in a crisis, infamous among them, the panic buying of toilet paper. There are, however, more alarming trends. Coronavirus has shown the callous way in which some people regard elderly lives, the disdain for organizations like the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and World Health Organization (WHO) and most concerning, the deepening of socioeconomic divides and increasing inequality. 

Like few other issues before it, the virus has reached every aspect of American social, cultural and political life. People are stuck in their houses, complaining online about how bored they are, exhausting Netflix’s entire catalogue and for college students, occasionally attending Zoom lectures. While this crisis has upended everyone’s plans and forced us all to make sacrifices, this burden has not been distributed equally. Part of fighting the coronavirus means closing all non-essential businesses, which includes clothing stores, hair salons and movie theaters, leaving the employees of those stores indefinitely unemployed. 

NPR reported on April 2 that 10 million workers have filed for unemployment in the past two weeks, and the overall unemployment rate is now estimated to be 15%. Worse, the virus has impacted healthcare access for these people. The Washington Post reported how “losing a job doesn’t just mean losing a paycheck. For millions, it will also mean losing employer-covered health care.” Further, the virus threatens thousands of healthcare workers who are on the frontlines fighting COVD-19, the hundreds of thousands who have been stricken with the virus and the thousands who have passed away. Once a person is diagnosed, they are whisked away to isolation in a hospital ward and forced to say goodbye to friends and family, not knowing if this is their last chance to see them. 

The truth is, for those of us cooped up inside our respective houses with no place to go and seemingly nothing to do, we have to acknowledge how lucky we really are to even have a house at which to take shelter. The country’s homeless are among the most vulnerable to COVID-19, as shelters and soup kitchens are often closely packed, available medical care is limited and they are often concentrated in urban areas facing the worst of the virus. The alternatives to boredom are struggling to meet basic needs, confinement to a sick ward or homelessness in a crowded city. If we fail to put our own disappointments and upheaval in perspective, we risk engaging in some deeply selfish behavior. 

Due to the nature of their fame and influence, celebrities are at the greatest risk for this lack of self-awareness. “Wonder Woman” star Gal Gadot’s recent cover of John Lennon’s “Imagine,” for which she enlisted various other celebrities, including Kristen Wiig, Jimmy Fallon, Mark Ruffalo, Natalie Portman and Will Ferrell, is an example. The three-minute video sees each celebrity sing a couple measures of the song, with Gadot explaining she was inspired when she saw an Italian man cover the song on trumpet from his balcony. The self-professed intent was that COVID-19 is the great equalizer, and that “we’re all in this together.” However, the video is deeply out of touch and paints with extremely broad strokes. If anything, the pandemic has done more to show the great divides and inequalities that exist in our country rather than prove that we’re all equals. 

The Washington Post shared the story of 64-year-old Ramona Valdez, who was laid off due to plummeting vacancy rates after 22 years as a Sheraton housekeeper. As a result, she lost her health insurance and must pay out of pocket costs to have a cast removed; money she doesn’t have. The fact that losing your job can mean losing your healthcare coverage and risking bankruptcy illustrates how incredibly unequal we all are.

Disparities can also be seen in availability and distribution of testing kits. When the virus first started picking up steam in the U.S. back in early March, actors Tom Hanks and Idris Elba each announced they had tested positive. While this news was saddening and caused an outpouring of support from their respective fans, the only reason the actors knew of their diagnosis so early was because they had the power and influence to gain access to testing kits. Testing kits which were initially very rare and the lack of which prevented those with obvious symptoms from being diagnosed and gaining access to the treatment they desperately needed. 

The Gal Gadot video itself has received lots of criticism, and the message is the same. Gadot’s good intentions are outweighed by how incredibly heavy-handed and out of touch this gesture comes across. While patients are dying in hospitals, doctors and nurses are working to exhaustion and people’s economic livelihoods are being destroyed, Gal Gadot and other wealthy celebrities are singing “Kumbaya” from their 20,000 square foot mansions with adjacent pools and tennis courts. Some of these celebrities seem incapable of perspective. At our level, it is important we take a step back amidst the chaos and recognize the privilege we may possess, and honor healthcare workers by binging as much Netflix as we can.